When the squirrels inside my head are most busy, I usually turn to murder/thrillers. The plots are familiar, the devices like a three-day old pair of jeans. Increasingly I worry that my analog brain adjusting to a digital world has become short-wired, unable to sustain attention on anything deeper than a genre thriller. Italian Shoes was the beginning of an antidote.
Henning Mankell is best known for his own murder series featuring Kurt Wallender, and this is how I became acquainted with him. Italian Shoes is not part of this series and seems to be part of his own later-life contemplation. It is also a wonderful example of spare Swedish prose.
Frederik Welin was in love once, and he fled from it. His relationship with his parents, like most of ours, was complicated and involves his move from their working class to his professional class as a doctor. When the novel begins, he has been in hiding even from his profession for quite some time. He lives on an island inherited from this grandparents with an aging dog and cat and an anthill that has taken over part of the living room, which he doesn’t use. To remind himself he is alive, he breaks a hole in the ice and bathes each morning. His primary human contact is with his mail carrier, a hypochondriac who uses him as an informal primary physician. Frederik’s life has stalled, which is symbolized by an old fishing boat he began renovating that is now rotting in his shed.
His life jerks forward and backward when the woman from whom he fled shows up, Harriet, crossing the ice with her walker. She is clearly ill and, as he soon discovers, dying. The dying have little to lose and often are ready to set matters right. Harriet’s anger at being abandoned pushes Frederik’s stasis and soon he is peeling back layers of emotion and questioning why he has run from most of what brought him joy.
The title, Italian Shoes, hints at the way Mankell approaches his prose. Italian shoes are works of art, handcrafted from seasoned leather and requiring patience and a fine eye. If you have the patience, this novel will offer up much to appreciate.